A person in bed looking up at a thought bubble of him walking his dog

Imagining My Way Back to Sleep

Does your brain race you into total panic or wide-eyed-wakefulness in the middle of the night? Does your hamster wheel spin so loudly it could wake the neighbors? Mine did when I had severe insomnia.

I would wake up, the sky would fall (or I would think it was about to), and I would have all the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms associated with severe anxiety and an inability to manage my thinking and feelings. My heart would race. My thoughts would spin. And the vicious circle would continue until I had to get out of bed and start my day. I had already planned out how disastrous it would be; after all, I might as well get going!

Applying imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT)

My brain would race about everything it seemed. Thoughts about anything were like fuel to the fire. Nowadays, this problem crops up only when I have certain kinds of triggers and life complications.

In the years since my insomnia, and through work on myself and with clients, I have learned to apply what is called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) to my racing brain. IRT is typically used in repetitive nightmares, but the concepts can be helpful with a busy brain, too.

This or That

Have you tried imagery rehearsal therapy?

This is how I do it

When I wake at night and sleep does not come back to me quickly because I'm anxious, I do this: I get in my comfy sleeping position. For me, this is on my back, but with a pillow on my stomach, harkening back to the pre-baby days when I could sleep on my front!

I then imagine all the details of the rest of the night and the morning. Not the beach of my dreams nor the best day of my life. Nothing imaginary. I literally walk myself through a visual narrative like this inside my head and tell myself the story of my morning.

I swing my feet out of bed and put them on the floor. The carpet is pink, not because I like pink but because it is the color the carpet was when we moved in, and it hasn't been changed yet.

I visualize myself walking down the stairs, and I grab the rail at the corner, where everyone does. I know this because I constantly have to wipe handprints off of it when I clean on Friday evening. I continue down the stairs, and my feet land on the cool laminate.

I visualize myself going to the fridge and grabbing the milk, which is on the left side of the second shelf. I always hope it won't set off my Raynaud's. I then turn to the left and walk to the machine, reach behind for a pod, and pop it into the...

You get the idea here. A progressive, detailed narrative helps occupy my mind with something neutral. This allows me to avoid getting absorbed back into my anxiety-provoking thinking.

Battling insomnia with IRT

I used to purposefully avoid imagining myself sleeping well, because, at that point, I would find it too unbelievable and also too dull to hold my attention.

Do you ever use your imagination to keep you from running down your mind's rabbit hole? What do you imagine?

Featured Forum

View all responses caret icon

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Insomnia.Sleep-Disorders.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.